Response to Democracy Matters Consultation on Scottish Local Democracy

Posted on the 3rd December 2018


The Electoral Reform Society is a membership organisation governed by a council elected from that membership. While not formally a community organisation, much of our work on sustaining and developing democratic practices has led us to work closely with civil society organisations that are interested in community development, and to partner with local community groups and organisations. We have been testing ways to give collective agency to members of local communities (citizens)

We are grateful to have gathered the experience of working with people across Scotland who are trying out different ways of making decisions in their own places.  ERS see its community of interest to be all citizens and those that work towards the aim of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Structural Reform – Executive Summary

A culture of democracy, sustainability and collective caring should be our objective for the development of Scottish Local Governance for all the reason argued below. However, we acknowledge that legislative and structural reform will not alone achieve this.

Big bang changes also bring along their own problems as we saw when the districts where abolished in 1995. The goal of new reform should be for the structures and institutions to gradually transform so that they are supportive and encouraging of the culture we seek to create – rather than institutions being something that make such a culture difficult. Here we share our experience and develop our arguments for reform. We summarise the most concrete suggestions below but wish to emphasise that the structure is not the change itself and the intention of that change must be explained and fully understood by everyone involved.

The existing local authorities should become regional/city authorities with a statutorily-defined remit to provide infrastructure and services to assist the more local units of governance to deliver their plans/vision and meet their defined ‘challenges’. This should also involve all elements of non-acute health services.

A new ‘permissive’ layer of elected ‘development councils’ would be available to any community that met certain criteria and could show popular support. This might mean through mini-publics or through a local vote or both. This council will be statutorily bound to have as a priority delivery of the local plan/vision set by the citizens’ assembly below.

In coming into being a ‘development council’ must establish a standing, annual citizens assembly for that community. Its early sessions to design a community vision/plan for the next three years and then the subsequent annual gatherings for the ‘development council’ to be accountable to the citizens’ assembly on progress on the vision.  The citizens’ assembly should be a randomly selected mini-public and selection and process should be highly specified so that it can fulfil requirements of democratic legitimacy. These assemblies must become as much a part of the democratic process as elections and so should be regulated by a new section of the ‘Elections Management Board’.


The purpose of local governance and the new institutions should be clearly defined so that all agencies and citizens are clear about their powers and responsibilities. Setting out these rights could be a focus for a national citizens’ assembly.

Such an Assembly could assess what framework is needed to protect these rights, for instance: community, cooperation, autonomy, security, liberty and so on.

We also feel that the right to local governance should be enshrined constitutionally in some manner. The method for doing so is far from clear but it is important to explore further to safeguard these rights and reforms.

Context – Time and Space

Scottish local governance operates within a very different context from the last time it was reviewed and changed.  In 1995 there was no Google, Facebook or smartphones, and John Major’s Government was in power at Westminster. The arrival of a Scottish Parliament was still half a decade away.

It is perhaps a testament to those that operate Scottish Local Government that an institution that was designed in such a different time can still operate with reasonable effectiveness. Nonetheless, it is important to ask if the overall approach to Local Governance still makes senses in such a dramatically changed setting.

The speed of technological and the arising socio-political change is now a reality of our times.  The main driver of these changes is the quality and quantity (good and bad) of information and its impact on how people feel about themselves, their communities and the institutions of liberal democracy.

Scottish society in the 1990s was organised around only a handful of possible narratives. The centre – government, media and to lesser extent broad cultural production – told one main story which was largely shared by the population. It served to instil and reinforce trust and confidence of the institutions within the wider population. That this is breaking down creates huge challenges. The decline in trust and belief is a key characteristic: people do not trust traditional leaders or institutions to explain or to lead the way forward, in the way that they might have done in the past.

Political intention, ideology, the personality and party of our representatives all matter, but there is something inbuilt now in the way that our democracy has evolved that has made it operate much more in the interests of some than of others.

‘Oligarchy’ is the default tendency of any political/social system and we either accept that or we remake systems that acknowledge this and build in corrective processes. Failure to do so properly, and the exposure of ‘government for the few’ through new media, has led to a positive rise in political consciousness and a worrying trend in political extremists capitalising on that confusion and anger.

We should explore how to use technology to decrease bureaucracy and help decentralise power and to facilitate the time that citizens have together face to face in real places. This face to face contact is essential. Meeting and debating via social media only and getting news and campaign message from online sources only has stoked the ‘dehumanisation’ of political debate and increased conflict.

Responses through governance

It is vital that some of these developments are addressed by better regulation, policing and enforcement of the mechanics of elections, parties and campaigns, and by the structural reform of our institutions suggested here, so they can catch up with our society.

This is why we are cautiously optimistic that parts of the Scottish Government and Scottish Councils are responding to these pressures for change with this ‘Democracy Matters’ consultation which will feed into the bill on Scottish Local Governance. It is a Bill we hope will help our local institutions of governance transform themselves into ‘the new within the shell of the old’.

We commend the Government for carrying out the consultation in a new way, there was a real effort to involve people. The door is more open than it has ever been in the past.  It is important to acknowledge and to have on the table the fact that there always there will be resistance to any calls for those with power to give up any of it. For many, this is almost an instinctive reaction.

Any programme of reform must consider not only what to reform to but also a long-term process of how the reform might be carried out.  While the reform in the 90s was implemented over 2 years a period of 3 to 5 years would be a suitable period over which to roll out the reform.

Principles of reform

This review and the subsequent reforms should be viewed as being built on previous work.   The great work  of the Christie Commissions on public service delivery in 2011 and  COSLA’s report from their commission on ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’ have provided us with principles that have come out of an  extensive and very involved body of work:

  • The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way around
  • The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and local governance must be right shape and form for the people and the places it serves
  • The principle of transparency: democratic decisions should be clear and understandable to communities, with clean lines of accountability back to communities
  • The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives and their communities
  • The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different parts of the democratic system should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depend on powers being handed down from ‘higher’ levels of governance
  • The principle of interdependency: every part of the democratic system must support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient
  • The principle of well-being: the purpose of all democracy is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it

Questions 1 – Our experience of getting involved in decision-making processes that affect local communities.

The Electoral Reform Society has been talking and thinking about a remaking of Scottish Local Democracy for some time now. In 2012 we started Democracy Max – an 18-month process consisting of a representative ‘peoples gathering’, public meetings and expert roundtables which culminated in a detailed report which recommended a range of reforms from media regulation to a citizens second chamber.

Six years on, we are still pushing forward on the main insight from that process: the idea that structures of democracy will always be limited if they are built from the top down. The actual method by which the institutions are designed and made will always result in forms of elite rule if they are elite-driven. One could argue that such an oligarchy is inevitable (Iron Law of Oligarchy) however we can see that rising populist and authoritarian tendencies, groups of ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ mean that there is far too much top-down, central, control already.

In such conditions, it is possible for one group of elites to point out to left-out parts of the population that another elite is manipulating them against their interests, which is a further and often greater manipulation of that population. These can lead to a fear of the people and an unwillingness to trust them, which can end up in a downward spiral of manipulation and centralised authoritarianism. The strongest response to this is to give people the chance to have themselves or people they know and trust closer to decision making.

While these are worrying developments here and in most Liberal Democracies, there are positive drivers for more democracy as we have discovered in our work and hope to demonstrate here. Scotland is ripe for democratic improvement. The independence referendum seems to have cracked open a source of civic energy that while dissipated somewhat is still sparking around in campaigns and communities across our land. Consciousness has been raised and once you know that activism and agency is possible it’s hard to go back to the soaps and the sofa.

We also have witnessed the creative solutions that people come up with for their own communities. They often have insights and solutions that it would be hard for others to hold or fully understand who are not living with the problem.

In making this submission we are not only sitting at a Laptop writing our policy or opinion. We are of course doing that, but we are also reflecting our experiences over the past few years in which we have actively sought out what people and communities think would make a better Scottish democracy and then experimented in real community setting with the processes and practices that might make that change happen.

To this end, from the time of Democracy Max until now we have undertaken a range of activities:

Deliberative Democracy and ‘Act As If You Own The Place’ 

We asked community partners to help us organise deliberative community planning events to see if local communities could come together and plan their spatial and social futures together. This was a way of developing methods of better community decision making. Building upon and developing this process we partnered with Coalfields Regeneration Trust to run a series of nine successful deliberative community planning and participative budgeting events across three communities (Cardenden, Bo’ness and Dalmellington). A 2-minute film is available here.

These are of course worthwhile activities in themselves, but we also used them to experiment with and learn about tools and techniques of local deliberative democracy so that we could ‘show’ and inform this consultation on the reform of local Governance.

These sessions, which we had tried to broadly reflect the demographics of each area, produced 5-year community action plans designed by and for the community with partial funding for elements of the plan

We have noticed that these democratic processes help build active communities so have a role in social cohesion as well as more meaningful decision making.  There will be a full report on the work we have done with CRT in an imminent publication.

Democracy 21 Conference and Declaration on Local Democracy

Closely connected and in parallel with the above as the lead agency of ‘Our Democracy’ we designed and ran a process of civil society and a community engagement consisting of several events for ‘problem definition’, ‘shared learning’ and ‘solution proposition’ in relation to Scottish Local democracy. This ranged from local community planning events of several hours, to day-long gatherings of interested community activists.

This culminated in a ‘Declaration on Local Democracy’   shaped and formed by that wide range of input. We launched this declaration at a major national conference – Democracy21 – which was attended by over 600 people committed to building a democracy fit for the 21st century.

It brought together citizens, activists, community groups, campaigns and unions to think about the challenges for democracy in the current political, social, and technological context and to attempt to collectively imagine the evolution of our current institutions and practice of democracy.

The Declaration is a further source of principles and values for the reform of Scottish Local Governance and we hope it informed many of the responses to this consultation.

The Declaration on Local Democracy in full:

“Democracy is the right for people to decide how the place where they live is run. For a hundred years this right has built our communities, our society and our sense of justice. But too few people now believe that this right is being honoured, too few believe that they decide and too many believe they are powerless and voiceless. So, we call for a new democracy which is ready to help us build for a hundred years to come.

“First, decisions must be made for each place, in that place by the people who live there. Our towns and villages must decide for themselves just as our nation must decide for itself. Power must exist at the scale of the community which is affected. We need our democracy much closer.

“Second, the right to decide should not disappear each time the brief flicker of an election is over. Delegating our right to decide is not enough. We must create a democracy that involves us all the time, where citizens do not just choose rulers but shape the rules.

“Third, democracy must be powerful. The right to choose must be matched by the power to do – and the power to do must be matched with the resource to do it. Democracy is not gifted from above but from below, so power and resource must rest in the places where people live.

“This is our simple vision for our future; a truly local democracy, a truly participatory democracy and a truly powerful democracy.

“We have learned the lesson of our last hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built, it must be built for us. We must now learn a lesson for our next hundred years; it is not enough that the future is built for us, it must be built by us.”

Q2. Would you like your local community or community of interest to have more control over some decisions? If Yes what sort of issues would those decisions cover.

Q3. When thinking about Local decision making, ‘local’ could mean a large town, a village or a neighbourhood. What does ‘local’ mean to you and your community?

We think that communities should be trusted as far as possible to run their own places.  This trust is important because it gives communities and individuals within them confidence and that agency may be a partial solution to some of the growing political and well-being problems in our society. It is known that being an actively involved citizen leads to much higher levels of reported well-being for the individual and for the community.

We are broadly supportive of the ideas put forward by Commonweal in their report Development Councils. We do think the key to those new local institutions working would be their ability to collectively plan the development of those places both spatially and socially

Our experience is that as much as possible a local community should be self-defined both as an administrative unit and in the decisions and services that it wants to take for itself and to direct.  This is probably going to be at levels of town and villages.

We should be creative about designing an infrastructure that supports these communities to organise at these levels and pull in organisational support and services to be directed from that community level (on areas where they feel it is possible to provide some direction, planning and collectively developed and agreed objectives).   

From Hierarchy to Networks

Much of our institutions of local governance are still organised largely as a kind of flattened pyramids. It seems likely that in the past such structure may have been necessary when information was scarce and difficult to replicate so that it was required to be collected and collated at the top/centre, decisions made and then communicated back down. While most hierarchies are structurally antagonistic to equality, freedom and democracy, there may have been reasonable argument that they were the necessary form of organisation.

A future structure that allows good democratic local governance would be one that provides networks into which people organising and doing things for themselves can fit.  This would be a transformative approach not a revolutionary one. It means supporting and encouraging different levels of self-governing in lots of places. It may mean a very gradual shift to self-managed communities.

It will include identifying communities that are, or are willing, to try more local means of governing and sharing their experiences and learning. These are not stand-alone units of decision making but should be able to utilise an infrastructure of support and connection that allows them to coalesce with other units located around them (or even across communities of interests) to form larger units where necessary. This would let them maintain as much sovereignty as they want while pooling and sharing what is necessary to scale up.

It will also mean understanding the different type of leadership skill required for such organisations as well as providing training and support. The ideology of leadership and management that underpins large-scale organisations today may be as limiting to organisational success as the ideology of feudalism was limiting to economic success in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

From Big to Small

Scale is important. Human beings can only have proper relationships with a finite number of people. Government has not been good at keeping things ‘human-sized’. Historically the British State has evolved from a ‘God, King, Parliament, Subject’ model. This ancient model fused with dominant economic orthodoxies suggested a set of success criteria and concepts such as ‘strong-man leadership’, economies of scale, financial efficiency, measuring only what is easily counted, so that our institutions are monolithic and one dimensional.

There is an honest question about the part power seeking and ego have played in that way of organisation. In designing or restructuring our local governance, we may need different or new ways to measure success and different reward and status structures. This is best defined by the communities that governance is there to serve. Too big is far from beautiful, or democratic, or effective.

From Competition to Cooperation

We want to take a firm stand on the point of principle that cooperation is the primary reason for organisation and is both more important and better for society than competition. We don’t organise together only to compete, we organise together to create a better society. Competition is more likely to create an environment of distrust, adversaries and protection whereas cooperation builds trust, encourages the sharing of information and common goals. The means and ends are better connected.

A culture that believes in the primacy of competition needs to be effectively and comprehensively challenged.  It has led to large parts of civil space becoming ‘marketized’ often by legislation creating contractors and clients where they do not naturally occur. This has helped create an environment of scarcity and cost-cutting, driving everything by price and cost so that time to properly work with people no longer exists (for instance a policy of fifteen-minute home care visits). It has led to large amounts of value being sucked up from civil society space and into investment vehicles. (Debt finance, shareholdings etc.). There are now alternatives such as the Preston model which seeks to circulate value in the local economy.

More than ever, change will be shaped by coalitions and networks. The changed society and shifting nature of power means that such structures are necessary to pool power to make transformations.

The future of Local Governance could be to provide a ‘framework’ around which a honeycomb of local democratic units can cluster.

The framework would be most useful if it was connected in all directions into the state (horizontally as well as vertically) and into civil society.

scottish development councils flowchart-03

Q4 Are there existing forms of local level decision making which could play a part in exercising new local powers. Are there new forms of Local Decision Making that could work well? What kind of changes might be needed for this to work in practise.

Reforming Representative Structures and bring health into ‘citizens up’ accountability. 

While we fully support having local representative democratic structures, they are in dire need of an overhaul if we are to reverse this decline in legitimacy and to create some feeling that local governance is done by the people, for the people.

The current system of Local Councils and Health boards are limited by their large scale and distance from people and communities so that there is no local identification or ownership felt by these institutions by citizens, except perhaps at a national level – for example; while Fife may have a strong sense of identity people in Dunfermline do not like feeling that they are being run from Glenrothes.

A system that allowed people to set up and elect a representative forum for that self-defined community should be considered. However, the representative element should only be the implementers of a plan or strategy that is developed by forms of deliberative democracy by a much wider section of the community, with many points at which anyone can take part.

We should acknowledge and seek to overcome the reality that many citizens see our local governance as undertaken by monolithic bureaucracies, making decisions in the interests of itself, its employees and/or bigger economic interests.

This is compounded in the case of the health service where the boards are appointed by ministers. Ministerial oversight over all public services is necessary but it would be easier for everyone if there was also a need to look to citizens for ideas and authorisation. The joint democratic processes of elections to councils at the two tiers and the deliberative standing forums explained below could achieve this.

Standing Deliberative Local Forums to set the Vision for the Community

We have experimented with a range of techniques and process of deliberative democratic decision making both in the ‘Act as If We Own the Place campaign’ and across the UK with Citizens Assemblies. We have shown that communities can plan for their own places and can take on board very complex ideas and decisions if they are given the time and properly designed and facilitated processes.

There should statutory processes of community planning which should combine spatial and social planning done as perhaps a 3-year plan with an annual or more frequent Local Forum to hold the Development Council to account on the implementation of the plan.

The operation of these forums must be meticulously designed so that lots of the democratic pitfalls are designed out, such as too much conflict and division.  There is plenty of global expertise and experience in this process, including here in Scotland.

These forums would be included as important and equal parts of the democratic process as elections and therefore we suggest that there be a ‘deliberative democracy’ section established resourced and run by the ‘Elections Management Board ‘to ensure that the deliberative forums are run to a reasonable standard of practice and legitimacy.

Question 5: Paying for it all

We suggest taking the experience of the ‘Local Tax Commission  revisiting it and using it to create a funding system for local governance based on local collection and retention with a layer of redistribution at the national level. There should be a great deal more flexibility for Local Authorities to use a range of local taxes to fulfil their needs. Including things like land and property taxes and bed and tourist taxes.

Spatial Planning

There has recently been a parallel review of the planning system in Scotland. It has been suggested that the separation of spatial planning from proper social control and planning over the last 3 decades has led to major economic and social problems. I.e. loss of value in local economies, very high land/house prices, insufficient housing.

However, we want to comment mainly on the democratic deficit that has arisen front that separation. One of the original intentions of the planning system was to ensure the public good and value of planning and subsequent consent was felt by the community. The erosion of this means that citizens no longer feel there is much public good or agency within the system. The balance has tipped too far away from citizens and their representatives and towards developers and landowners. We feel this is part of the overall undermining and de-legitimising of the democratic institutions. We think the ‘community plans/visions’ developed by the ‘local citizens assemblies ‘should have some statutory weight within the planning system.    



Find out about the Our Democracy coalition here:

Read about the Declaration on Local Democracy:

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